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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

IBS in the Office: Ways to Help Yourself (or Someone You Know)

She’s the persona of office perfection. Gliding down the hallway with a headful of glossy high (and low) lighted hair, perfectly tailored attire, and a manicure that’s never met a chip, she knocks down every deadline smoothly (with a smile).

But she’s also got a secret—and it’s called IBS (or irritable bowel syndrome), a digestive condition causing symptoms like abdominal cramping, uncomfortable bloating, and frequent dashes to the ladies room for episodes of urgent diarrhea or constipation. And she’s not alone. IBS is estimated to affect 15% of the US population—and more women are diagnosed than men.

Successfully navigating a chronic health issue isn’t easy for anyone, but IBS presents some particularly sticky situations for those of us tied to an office all day. Tanya, 30, a project manager for a nonprofit, describes the “awkwardness” of trying to hide IBS symptoms in her office environment. “We all shared one [restroom]… I felt that everybody could hear me using the bathroom and felt very conscious if I had to go.” Ashley, 21, who works in healthcare, notes that it’s nearly impossible to run and sit in the bathroom for 20 minutes for her job. “I just don’t have that kind of time.”

What’s more, “for the average 20-something female at work, there is a sense of pressure to present to the world a person who has it all together,” says Barbara Bradley Bolen, PhD, clinical psychologist and co-author of IBS Chat, a compilation of online posts to the Irritable Bowel Syndrome Self Help and Support Group. “Since IBS does not fit easily into that picture, there can be extra stress from trying to keep it hidden.”

And that extra stress is the last thing that an IBS sufferer needs, says San Francisco based gastroenterologist, Dr. Tim Sowerby, MD. Although it’s not known exactly why IBS happens, stress has been shown to exacerbate symptoms.

So, today, I’m focusing on a few ways to take down the angst surrounding IBS in the office. And, even if you don’t have IBS—keep reading. There’s a chance that you may have a co-worker (or friend) who does, and a little understanding on your part will go a long way relieving her (oft hidden) suffering.

Realize That @#$! Happens

Not to be crude—but, well, it does. So, accepting the fact that all humans (even us delicate ladies!) use the loo and that we all have different (sometimes difficult) digestion is the first step. (Take it from the children’s classic Everyone Poops, which has been telling us this for almost 20 years.)

“Don’t be ashamed of your symptoms… you are not defined by your IBS,” says Bolen. “Just because IBS involves the bowels, there should be no more shame involved than that of a person suffering from diabetes or asthma.”

“The thing that has made the difference for me,” says Tanya, “is realizing that it doesn’t actually matter if people know you have an upset stomach or if you need to use the bathroom. People will not think badly of you—if anything, they will sympathize.”

If you’re up for it, “be honest with your colleagues so that there is less pressure to hide symptoms,” she suggests. “I always found that being honest with people was much easier than trying to hide it.”


You Are What You Eat

My mom used to talk about a condition called “doorknob mouth,” in which we (her hungry children) would thoughtlessly shove whatever we could find (ice cream, cookies, industrial sized boxes of Wheat Thins) in our mouths the second we came home from school and closed the door.

Most of us have experienced the office version of this—seeing that beautiful greasy pink box in the break room and making a beeline for the donuts. But grabbing the first (or only) thing that’s available can provide a unique stumbling block for IBSers in the office. Although the list of IBS food flares differs for everyone, some major culprits are the standard office break room fare—coffee, fatty foods, high fructose corn syrup (which, heck, is found in just about everything), and artificial sweeteners like the sorbitol in sugar-free gum.

So, overcoming the inclination to eat mindlessly (or recklessly) when you’re stressed is key, as is having the discipline to stick with packing a lunch full of  “IBS safe” foods, instead of wasting change when shiny wrappers in the vending machine call your name.

Sowerby says that lifestyle changes like dietary modification are first-line treatment for IBS. “The majority of IBS patients will respond to dietary modification,” he explains. “They may not be cured, but they are going to feel better and life is going to be more manageable.”


Work Smarter, Not Harder

As Bolen explains, “some IBS sufferers will actually try to work extra hard in order to overcompensate for the feelings of shame and imperfection they harbor due to their IBS.”

But the stress associated with job pressure, long work hours, and sleep deprivation play right into the vicious cycle of IBS exacerbation, says Sowerby. “Some people just have to slow down.”

This may mean modifying your work schedule for a later start, says Bolen in her guide to IBS on, as “many IBS sufferers find their symptoms are worse in the morning,” or, like Tanya, switching to job duties that are office-based rather than on the road. Finding a decent restroom in the field was unpredictable, so she always “avoided eating, which made me very tired and sometimes lightheaded. Or [I would] get headaches. Eventually I ended up giving this job up.”

Or maybe it’s time to face the fact you’re having a crisis of the quarter-life kind, and your body is frantically signaling that it’s time for major change. “I’ve come to learn that my body talks to me—if IBS is affecting me because of stress or anxiety, my body is telling me something is wrong,” says Tanya.

Her advice, and quite possibly the silver lining for this syndrome? “Use IBS as a tool to make sure you’re on the right path in life. ”

Photo courtesy of office hallway courtesy of Shutterstock.